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How to Submit to a Literary Agent


I want to get a literary agent? How does Agent Query help me with that?

Big broad umbrella question. So let’s break it down. First things first. What kind of work are you shopping? Fiction? Nonfiction? Short Story Collection? Children’s Books? What’s the genre? Is it fiction? Mystery? Fantasy? Romance? Or is it nonfiction? History? Politics? Self-Help?

Identify the genre of your book, then search our AQ database to help find all the literary agents that represent your genre, depending on if it’s fiction or nonfiction. Isolate ten agents who you think might be a good match. Be prepared. You’ll find plenty more than ten agents in our AQ database, so don’t overwhelm yourself. Just narrow it down to ten agents and move forward.

What exactly is the “standard submission process”?

Okay, so you’ve picked out ten literary agents from our AQ database, right? Now, let’s breakdown the submission process into three distinct rounds: 1) introduction via query 2) invitation to submit a partial and 3) invitation to submit the full manuscript.

Of course there are exceptions to this. Aren’t there always exceptions? First, nonfiction is a different ballgame than fiction. In fact, it’s really a different universe. With nonfiction, you can often submit a query and partial (sample chapters) at the same time. Plus, an agent can often sell your unfinished, nonfiction book to major publishers on the basis of your nonfiction proposal and credentials. In other words, you don’t have to finish the whole nonfiction masterpiece before querying agents because they can sell your nonfiction "concept" to publishers on the basis of your proposal: outline, table of contents, and sample chapters.

In the next galaxy, lies fiction. Beware to all newbie unpublished fiction writers. While you most certainly can get a literary agent without previous publishing credits, we recommend that you don’t query agents until you’ve completely finished your novel. Often, agents want to see the complete fiction manuscript before they offer representation to an untested, unpublished writer. So if you query without a completed novel—don’t come crying to us when an agent actually requests to see your full manuscript—and whoops, you ain’t got one.

What about children’s picture books? Literary agents want to see the whole manuscript, often only 3-8 pages along with your query. Forget about the illustrations. If you succeed in intriguing an agent with your children’s picture book and your agent sells it to a Major Publisher, the MP will hire their own big-wig illustrator to put pictures to your words.



How do I contact literary agents about my writing?

There are only two ways to approach potential agents: snail mail or email. Don’t ever cold call. We’re warning you. Don’t do it. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. And although we do list agent phone numbers in our database, we do NOT encourage you to cold call and harass agents regarding your book. Bottom line: don’t cold call as a preemptive method of querying—don’t do it, ever.

How do I email a literary agent about my writing?

Some agents accept email queries, others don’t. Our AQ database explicitly tells you which agents do or don’t. So trust us. Don’t be lazy and shoot off a bunch of agents your email query with your fingers-crossed, hoping Ms. Agent will simply fall in love with your writing and forget that she hates to be queried via her business or personal email address. You’ll be ignored, and maybe even blacklisted. (Okay, blacklisted is unlikely, but you get our point).

Email query etiquette and format?

An email query is a brief, text-only version of a regular snail mail query. Unless specifically requested by the agent, don’t send your MS Word query as an attachment. Copy and paste the text into the body of the email. Agents are paranoid about receiving virus-tainted attachments, and they should be. So don’t send email queries with attachments. They will be unread and deleted every time—guaranteed.

Flag your query as such in the subject line of your email: QUERY: GRAPES OF WRATH. Otherwise, agents will miss it, skip over it, or simply disregard it as spam.

Also, personalize your email queries to specific agents. Don’t just send out one mass email. You will get zero responses. Oh, and by the way, it is becoming commonplace for agents to respond only if they are interested in knowing more. So don’t check your email thirty times a day, wondering why Ms. Agent hasn’t even bothered to take the time to reject you. She won’t. Just like in high school, cold silence is her rejection.

Why should I bother snail mailing literary agents about my writing?

In the past two years, we've noticed an explosion in the number of agents who have actually switched their submissions preference from snail mail queries only to email queries only. While this is great for writers and their pocketbooks (because email is free and easy), the fact remains that many agents who do accept both email queries and snail mail queries—without stating a preference—only respond to the email queries that interest them. In other words, writers who exclusively send out email queries often complain that they're getting zero responses from agents. Actually, the truth is that these writers are getting responses. That cricket chirping silence? Yeah, that? Chirping crickets = rejection from the agents. No response required because they ain't interested.

Also, you may be interested to know that most veteran agents with the best agencies and most prestigious client lists often DON'T accept email queries. However, these are the exact agents that should be at the top of your query submission list. These agents make the big cha-ching money deals—including various selling subsidiary rights along with the North American book rights. And ironically, in this digital day and age, it's these agents who are queried less often by aspiring writers because of the perceived effort and "inefficiency" of their snail mail query submission guidelines. But that's precisely why these agents don't accept email queries. Technically, they don't need more clients. Many of them already represent bestselling authors. But that doesn't mean they won't glance over their snail mail slushpile or train their assistants to read it for them. After all, the smart, savvy agents know that fresh talent and the next six-figure deal could easily be hiding there.

If you think that's rude or you can't handle not being formally sent a rejection, then send out snail mail queries to agents who don't specify a preference, and be sure to send an SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) with your query letter. Most agents will always reply to a snail mail query with at least a form rejection, if you've bothered to include an SASE.

Snail mail etiquette and format?

Most agents are happy to review a one-page query with a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for their response. Unlike email queries that often don’t receive any response if the agent is uninterested, many snail mail queries still receive formal rejections, adding some closure to the process.

We recommend that you print your one-page query on plain white or ivory stationery paper, and mail it in standard plain white envelope. Double up a standard No.10 self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE), stuff itinside, and you’re done. Mail it first class unless the agent asks to see sample pages along with the query. Then, consider mailing it priority. In our experience, agents respond much faster to priority mail than first-class. Not necessarily any more or less positive, but simply weeks faster. But of course, it depends on your budget and your level of patience.

Can I mail some sample chapters along with my query?

Sometimes. Sometimes not. Each agent has his or her own specific preferences. Some agents like to see a synopsis along with the query. Some prefer to see a sample chapter or two in order to evaluate the author’s writing style. Upon first introduction, some agents want a query accompanied with a partial of the first 50 pages. Each agent is different, and our AQ database attempts to list—in detail—the best method for querying each agent, depending if you’re shopping around fiction or non-fiction.

What happens when a literary agent likes my query?

If your query does its job, you will intrigue Ms. Agent and she will invite you to send her sample chapters of your writing. This is dubbed “a partial.” Don’t freak out when this happens. Hopefully, it will—and often. With fiction, a partial is typically the first 50 pages. Or an agent will ask for the first three chapters. If your first three chapters are longer or shorter than average, just send the first 50 pages, give or take a few pages in order to allow for a full chapter break at the end of your partial. No agent will mind that you submitted 55 pages instead of 50 in order to forward along the final pages of a chapter.

Format your manuscript with 12 point Times New Roman, one inch margins all around, double spaced. Some people also use Courier, but we feel Courier font is more a screenplay standard than a literary manuscript standard. Be sure to number all your pages in the upper right hand header, as well as your last name and title in the upper left (example: Steinbeck/Grapes of Wrath).

Construct a title page. Your manuscript's title page should have your name, address, phone number, and email address listed as four separate lines in the upper left-hand corner of your title page—the same way you would list your contact info in a business letter. Then drop one-third down the page and set your auto-indentation to "center." Type your manuscript's title, "GRAPES OF WRATH," (ALL CAPS—no quotes!) in the center, then hit "enter" twice. Type "BY" (ALL CAPS—no quotes!). Hit "enter" twice more. Then type your name "JOHN STEINBECK" (ALL CAPS—no quotes!). Voila, you've got a professional manuscript title page. Don't forget to put "WORD COUNT: 85,000" in the upper-right hand corner (Again, ALL CAPS—no quotes!)

Then, send your partial off with a cover letter, reminding the agent that she requested a partial of your work. Include a copy of her original request. Mark your address label with the tag “REQUESTED MATERIALS,” so it won’t get sucked into the slush pile abyss. Send it priority with confirmation. Don’t call or email her to make sure she got it okay. That’s the oldest trick in the book. Just breathe and wait.

How long does it take a literary agent to respond to my snail mail query? Partial manuscript? Full manuscript?

For snail mail queries, average is two weeks to a month. Some bigger agencies are bombarded and it may take several months. But we don’t consider this the norm.

For partials, 50 pages or less, the average is one to two months. Yes, two months. Just for a partial. So simmer down chickpea. Sit on your hands and wait another month before you make that chipper, but eagerly desperate “just checking up” phone call or email.

For full manuscripts, the average is anywhere between one month to four months. Two to four months is typical. If you’re not a patient person, become one. If you haven’t heard anything from the agent in four months, shoot them a quick email, inquiring about its status. Unfortunately, in our experience, most agents ignore follow-ups from writers, so be prepared for silence. Agents will respond when they have time to respond. When they’ve read your full manuscript, they will let you know.

Is it okay to “simultaneously submit” to literary agents?

Simultaneously submitting to agents means you’re querying more than one agent at a time. And yes, you must simultaneously submit QUERIES, or you’ll never get anywhere. However, we do recommend that you pace yourself by sending queries out in batches. No more than ten or so. As you receive rejections and acceptances, you’ll also receive feedback, wanted or unwanted, warranted or not. You may find yourself revising your work, revising your query, or simply revising your search. Although we have hundreds of agents in our database, there are a finite number of agents who will be interested in representing your genre of book. Meter out your queries, and be sure to send your best work out into the world. Inevitably, your best work will evolve through revision and review—so don’t burn up all your options from the get-go by sending out forty queries in the first round. Instead, send out bunches of ten queries every two to three weeks.

Can I query two literary agents in the same agency?

Unless an agency specifically says you can NOT query different agents in the same agency, then we say “yes”. But DON’T query multiple agents in the same agency at the same time. Query one agent first and wait for a response. If the first agent is a no-go, wait a few weeks, then query a second agent in the same agency.

A literary agent wants an “exclusive.” Should I grant it?

Once an agent expresses interest in your writing, she may request an exclusive read of your partial or full manuscript. This means you promise to stop shopping your manuscript around to other agents while Ms. Exclusive Agent takes two to four months to read your work and decide whether or not she wants to offer representation. Exclusives are very disadvantageous to the writer, but often writers cave in and grant them, especially if Ms. Exclusive Agent is considered a top-tier mover and shaker.

Our opinion? Be honest, upfront, professional, and discerning. Handle each request for an exclusive as it comes, and don’t offer an exclusive without being directly asked for it. In general, we don’t recommend offering exclusives on partials. But if you must offer an exclusive on a partial, cap it at two weeks. If you grant an exclusive on your full manuscript, only offer it for four to six weeks. No more. And if you do grant an exclusive, honor it. Your future reputation is at stake.

By the way, if you don’t offer exclusives and multiple agents are reading your partial or full manuscript at the same time, be sure to follow basic rules of professionalism. If you are offered representation and accept it, be sure to alert via email any agents who still are considering your manuscript that you’ve accepted representation elsewhere. Otherwise, you contribute to the “exclusive vicious cycle,” and encourage more agents to ask for exclusives because they’ve been burned by writers like you in the past.

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